To leave the safety of your bed, knowing that you must fight off a blanket of darkness, climb a wall of despair, and be pelted with boulders of hopelessness, all while negotiating a razor wire of fear, is not weakness. It is strength. I’m grateful that I don’t fight the battle of anxiety and depression, but for those of you I know and love, who grapple daily with these demons, you are more powerful than you know and I am proud of you.
I wrote this a year ago today, and posted it on Facebook. It popped up this morning, which was strange because I’ve had this subject in the back of my mind for a while. I’m so thankful that I have only felt a wave of panic well up in me twice in my lifetime, but those two brief episodes were enough to convince me that people who have felt that tidal wave of fear wash over them, and still carry-on, are freaking superheros.
The first time it happened, I was in a small plane which was experiencing an abnormal amount of turbulence, enough to make the attendants, whose facial expressions I always scrutinize for any signs of fear whenever there is a flight irregularity, quickly take their seats and buckle up. Out of nowhere, my heart started to pound, my palms got sweaty, and I almost started to pant as I fought off a sense of impending doom. I felt like there wasn’t enough air and my seat-belt was squeezing the breath out of me. This passed through me in a matter of seconds, until my brain realized that I was experiencing a natural reaction (ok, slight overreaction) to a potentially life threatening situation. Thankfully, I was able to calm myself down with deep breaths and the whole episode only lasted about 30 seconds.
The second time I nearly panicked, was when I accidentally swallowed acetone (long, ridiculous story!), and as I was washing my mouth out with water at the sink, I started to hyperventilate and feel like I was choking, a thought made even more scary by realizing that even if I wasn’t alone, no one could do anything because I wasn’t choking on anything except chemicals. Again, I was able to calm myself down, and think rationally enough to call poison control. I was fine, and both of these autonomic responses were fairly reasonable, as there was at least a potential for harm. But what if there was no threat to my safety? Imagine how it would feel if anxiety welled up for no reason, unbidden and unwanted, and could not be rationalized away?
The two experiences I had, lasted only seconds, but they were so intense that I remember that feeling, years later. It is enough to give me empathy for the people in my life who experience sheer terror even when there is no real threat to their safety. I have seen people whom I love, experience this, and their eyes look the eyes of a person who is drowning. Pupils dilated, hands shaky, some have grasped my arm like it is a life raft. Some of these people have been patients, rendered breathless from lung disease, and some have been family. I once had to take a panicky friend to the doctors, who would not leave the perceived safety of my car, so I had to go the appointment in her stead, and implore the doctor to see her in the car, which he kindly did. I’ve had patients grip my arm so tightly they have left crescent shaped fingernail marks in my skin, and say, “don’t leave me!” I didn’t. I’ve escorted people to psychiatrist appointments, and one time was asked to go to the appointment myself because, “you can explain how I feel much better than I can.” Again, I didn’t, but I sat with this person, while they fought the urge to run. I’ve had to drive two different people to the emergency room because they both were convinced they were having a heart attack. I’ve had children hide their faces in my neck, and cling to me like a baby monkey, and I’ve had family members lean their head on my shoulder, to try to slow their breathing and their pounding hearts. Why am I surrounded by anxious people? I can’t say. I like to think that calmness is a gift from God, so when an anxious person leans on me, I always pray that His peace will pass through me and bleed onto them.
“I wish I had your strength,” a dear person once said to me. “I’m not strong, I’m just lucky.” I told her. This is true. It is not strength or bravery to feel no fear. Bravery is feeling fear and doing it anyway. To the people I know and love who feel anxiety or even full on panic attacks and yet quietly work, care for your children, pay your bills and live your life, in spite of your fears; YOU are the strong ones and I admire YOU.